Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Conceptualizing Violence

Author Jason Horsley: Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery (from the intro to The Blood Poets)

It’s unsettling to think that at any moment life can flare up into senseless violence. But it can and does, and people need to be ready for it. The process of life presupposes violence, in the plant world the same as the animal world. But among the animals only man can conceptualize violence. Only man can enjoy the idea of destruction.
—Paul Bowles, Conversations

Violence would seem to be the most seductive of all forbidden subjects; unlike sex, it is something we only enjoy vicariously. Most of us would admit to being personally appalled and revolted by actual violence, whether witnessed at a safe distance (barroom brawl, car crash, etc.) or actually directed at our own person. In the former case, a certain perverse fascination remains, but in the latter all such mixed feelings have given way to a total aversion, as mere instinct (self-preservation) takes over. In cinema however, our feelings become far more complex. Most (but not all) males would admit to taking a certain pleasure or satisfaction in screen violence, so long as it is effectively depicted. This last stipulation is of course the key. Just what constitutes “effective depiction of violence”?
Clearly it is not merely a matter of realism, as such films as Robocop, Dawn of the Dead, and The Road Warrior are among those most treasured by this blood-seeking (male) audience. In fact, such “serious” meditations on the nature of violence as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer are invariably total duds with the mass audience, and with reason: Henry is a nigh-unwatchable film, not an ordinary “bad” film, but a sort of anomaly. We don’t need a film to show us that violence is sordid and repulsive; we already know this. Anyone who’s ever sliced his thumb or stubbed his toe knows this.
A great film about violence, such as Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch, or Fight Club (as opposed to a great film that happens to be violent, such as The Godfather), must raise—though not necessarily answer—questions about the meaning of violence. It must on the one hand present it unflinchingly in all its horror and brutality, and on the other poeticize it, make it beautiful to us, in order to establish its terrible allure. Above all, the script must itself be a justification for, and a meditation on, this violence. Otherwise we have simply another pop holocaust for the masses to munch popcorn over. The paradox in the above is obvious. The filmmaker and his film must, like the audience, be manifestly ambivalent about violence in order to present it honestly to us. It’s no good to simply condemn it as wrong, since this amounts to no more than an empty (and impotent) knee-jerk reaction. Such moralizing merely complements (and justifies) the other kind of reactionaryism—movies which glorify violence and thereby tell us, implicitly, that it is right.[1]
A great work of art is always ambiguous, in any case. The alternative is dogma or propaganda, anathema to the true artist, who lives in a constant state of uncertainty about his own feelings. Violence is—along with sex—the subject about which we are all, artists and laymen, most uncertain. It is an intrinsic, inevitable part of life, and yet (like sex), we cannot help but wonder just what it is really there for. Our pleasure in violence is a guilty pleasure, certainly; but it is not necessarily an immoral or transgressive one.
All animals are violent by instinct. A cat toys with a mouse in what appears to be sadistic glee, but is really just an expression of its hunter instinct. The pleasure of sex is, for an animal at least, a “side effect” of a natural, programmed function. The pleasure is like an incentive (or consolation?) to ensure the animal keep at it and give its full attention to the act. In sex and in violence, the organism comes fully alive, because there is no other way to do justice to the act.
Violence is no longer a natural part of our functioning day; it is not, strictly speaking, necessary to our survival. And yet the basic program for violence remains, hence the continuing passion for hunting, sport, barroom brawling, shooting, war games (real and simulated), and movies. There is no getting away from the fact that man has violence in him, and it must come out. Hence there is no denying that movies (like sport and wrestling and all the other pastimes, including sex) can serve as catharses by which our violence can be experienced, vicariously, and hence released.
The question finally comes down, not to whether a film is for or against violence, or even whether it is art or trash, but to whether it serves to relieve or augment the violence within us. In other words, whether we come out more pent-up, more twisted up inside, than when we went in, or whether we come out in some small way reconciled to our inner tension (if only temporarily). Since this question can never be reduced to a science, censorship can never be anything but tyranny applied to the arts. So the whole question remains largely academic.
We admit to being intoxicated by violence on the screen in more or less equal proportion to the revulsion we feel for it in real life.[2] Is this a question of demand creating content or content dictating demand? Or is it simply an inevitable symptom, evidence that art, any art, must above all represent the time in which it is conceived? Violence is such an intrinsic part of life on Earth now that any film that does not contain an explosive or bloody moment seems almost lacking something essential! During the ’60s, the various assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the Manson murders (to name only a few events of that decade), caused an enormous shift in our collective awareness of violence and our relationship with it. Movies played a central role in addressing this new awareness and in reconciling us to our capacity for violence. In some ways, they served to consolidate it, to confirm it, but at times also to confuse it. In other ways, they served a more creative function, that of forcing us to look more closely at the truth no matter how awful it might seem. What can one say, then, to people who flinch from screen violence, and insist they have no time for violent movies? This seems to me nothing more than moral squeamishness, yet this squeamishness is, to all intents and purposes, presented as virtue.[3]
If a person had conquered all inner conflict, was truly at peace, and had absolutely no repressed violent tendencies within them, they would, I suppose, feel no need to be subjected to works that forced them to stare at the ugliness of the world. But if such a person exists, I doubt very much that he or she goes to movies! For the rest of us, violence is an issue that is anything but settled. If movies can serve to bring us closer to understanding our feelings about violence, our fear, fascination and loathing of it, then they have served an essential purpose, a social function no less, and deserve to be tolerated, as does all art, no matter how shocking or “immoral” it may ostensibly appear to be. This is the bottom line on all questions of censorship.
A film such as Natural Born Killers or Fight Club, which glorifies violence in order to condemn it (or vice versa), which plays with both sensibilities and bounces one extreme off the other, in an attempt (I think successful, though many disagree) to explode the whole conundrum entirely, is, by definition, an “irresponsible” work. It is perfectly feasible that either of these films might “inspire” some budding sociopath to act out his own maniacal fantasies. But it is also possible it would have the opposite effect, and, by satisfying our sociopath’s anti-social leanings (for the time being at least) without his having to act upon them, persuade him to stay at home. In both cases, of course, the film is only a catalyst (or a dampener). Something else would presumably have come along sooner or later and served the same function, so the tendency of the press to blame a film (or whatever) for a supposed “copycat” act suggests, quite irresponsibly I think, that people are mere marionettes, waiting, like Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, for their trigger to be pulled. It gives to movies a power, and a responsibility, which they have by no means earned.
Put more simply: the fault, dear reader, lies not in the movies but in ourselves.

1. There remains of course a fine line between the supposed extremes, and such films as Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange could quite easily fit into both camps, though I would personally put them in the latter, along with such obviously “fascist” (i.e., force-advocating) works as Dirty Harry, and any recent Hollywood revenge fantasy you can name.
[2] Though personally I no longer enjoy a movie simply because it is violent, I certainly enjoy violence that is well-portrayed in a movie, just as I enjoy a dance number or a car chase or an alien landing that is skillfully or imaginatively rendered. The fact remains that, out of ten great American movies you could name from the last forty years (and especially out of that golden decade the ’70s), at least half of them, and probably more, would contain scenes of violence, and probably graphic violence at that.
3. As Pauline Kael observed: “What does it mean when someone says to you in a prissy, accusing tone that he ‘doesn’t like’ violence? Obviously, he’s implying that your ability to look at it means that you like it. And you’re being told that you’re made of coarser stuff than he is.” “Fear of Movies,” When the Lights Go Down, pg. 457.


SM Kovalinsky said...

Beautiful work. I look forward to reading both full texts. You make important points: whether the taste for violence is relieved, or augmented. You are subtle, Jake. And Nietzschean. He pointed out the lack of violence in everyday life, in democracy, in "mush culture"; violence being to him "an ancient value, anti-democratic, but which it is wholly inhumane to repress". Excellent and brilliant analysis. I am honored to have you post for me. Thank you.

Hurlyburly said...

Hi Jake, first of all I'd just like to say it was a pleasure meeting you a few months ago, had a very nice afternoon with the variety of different personalities at the table!

I complete agree, responses to violence can predominantly go two ways, ulimately though, these responses indicate more about ourselves then they do the movie. The movie is perhaps like a few glasses of wine; moods can be amplified and even altered but not necessarily changed completely. A stable mind that becomes unhinged by a movie was clearly not that stable.

Would you say Taxi Driver was a film about violence? I would agree it is a violent film about alienation and frustration? I probably mis-read you point as i often will in my hasty youth but perhaps you could clarify this for me? Either that or I will re-read it and find understanding, probably the latter!

If you enjoyed Taxi Driver and Fight club, may I recommend an outstanding film of similar nature starring Edward Norton called "Down in the Valley" Norton's charatcter is very Travis Bickle, a nobody dreaming of being a somebody.

Norton seems to be involved in many of the most violent films today, you mentioned Fight club also, the "curb" scene in American History X is consistantly mentioned to me as perhaps one of the most sickening and violent moments ever!

Thanks for a wonderful read anyway Jake, hope all is well.

SM Kovalinsky said...

Martin: I saw Taxi Driver at age 16, and found it deeply disturbing, and most definitely about alienation and frustrations, with violence as the secondary theme. Jake has much good to say on the theme of violence in cinema and in our postmodern world.

Jason (Jake) Horsley said...

Hi Martin

fair point about Taxi Driver - i think i cited it because altho not a study of violence the way Wild Bunch & Fight Club are, it certainly gets pretty close to diagnosing the root causes of violence, or a certain type of violence. For Travis, violence is "the only door through which he enters life" (paraphrasing Tom Waits song); as Kael wrote, it's the only orgasm he can have.

TD is really a portrait of a sociopathic personality who has no choice, finally, but to explode into violence. Since Travis is very much an everyman, the film portrays I think a basic correlation in the alienated male between (sexual) frustration and violent outbursts.

Good to meet you too, BTW.

Hurlyburly said...

I'm currently watching the 100 greatest scary moments ever whilst enjoying my late shift at work. Some very violent moments of all different natures being mentioned.

Resevoir Dogs - The moment the ear comes off, the camera looks away, as do we. Goes to show that the most violent of images can be left to the human imagination to fill in the blanks!

Then there was Blue Velvet. Jake - I have heard many stories about how Dennis Hopper scared everyone by getting into the role a little too much! Method acting gone wrong if you will...

Anyway, thanks for clarifying the Taxi Driver thing, the "door in which he enters life" perspective is very true and very interesting indeed.

Anyway, Joe Pesci is no asking Ray Liotta "what's funny?" so I must get back to not working. Jake, thanks again, the pleasure was all mine.

SM Kovalinsky said...

Martin: Did you know the poet Rilke said "Killing is a form of our wandering sorrow"? That is a profound piece of psychologizing, and when I saw Eminem live, chanting, "blood, guns , knives, . . . bitch Ima kill you" that actually flashed into my mind? Killing is the form of our wandering sorrow-----that should be on Jake's book cover.

Karl L Le Marcs said...

Interesting piece but taking this discussion away from just films, that is a beautiful Rilke quote Susan Marie, putting me in mind of the RATM lyrics from "Killing In The Name" and it is an interesting concept to consider just what "violence" is defined as, philosophically, throughout antiquity to quantum philosophy.

All matter is merely energy in constant vibration and state of high activity, against the realm of stillness and the philosophical void. Conceptualising violence in this definition extends us towards empiric experiences as seemingly banal as opening our eyes to observe a tableau, collapsing the waveforms violently and creating our illusion.

Good to see you resurfacing Jake, hope you appreciate your Ape of Thoth has the fondest of best wishes.


SM Kovalinsky said...

Beautifully put; well, well spoken: add THAT into your writings and Marinoff will be on his knees.

Jason (Jake) Horsley said...

Here's a short excerpt from SCHIZO CINEMA, a chapter I did with Phil Snyder, based on his thesis of the Great American Psychopath:

"Blue Velvet is the most powerful statement of the revved up Psychopathic psyche in modern movies. Frank (Hopper) exists at that edge where the Psychopath has jacked himself up so high on his own obsessions and other substances that he begins to flicker over into the other side. This is implicitly suggested by the bizarre cut in the film, when at Ben’s place, Frank cries “I’ll fuck anything that moves!” cackles insanely, and—disappears! It’s this level of freedom, which is not realistic but literally deranged, and which comes from being pumped up on “the American Dream,” that the Psychopath is searching for, and which he will never find (at least without destroying himself). The Psychopath wants complete personal control over time and space, over himself, and over other people. He is like a super-baby in an adult body (note Frank’s Mommy/Daddy fixation). Americans (and any other Psychopath, at least in the present terms) are big babies. They want it all. Frank is such a strangely endearing character because, among other things, his search has taken him deep into his own psyche, and through his heroic indulgences, his psyche is exposed for us all to see. Through Frank, we begin to see what it is that the Psychopath has been up to all along.

SM Kovalinsky said...

JAKE: Excellent analysis, and I almost feel it deserves its own post. Perhaps a series. And you most certainly would have much to say about current/recent films (Did you see Dark Knight? Violence, but something more than mere violence, in the Joker as played by Heath ledger)---Do you know what makes me fume? That you writing on this subject matter would be all over the NYTimes, etc, if you had a certain name---ahh, fie on it, it doesn't matter, I simply went thru this thing with Elizabeth Wurtzel----she wrote on all I did, but poorly, and she was from Harvard, so hers sold megamillions-----Thank you for that. Martin will appreciate.

SM Kovalinsky said...

JAKE: Did not mean to project my own frustration onto your experience, which has been far better than my own----I just get angry when large 6 figure grants go to already famous authors with book/movie deals---so sorry, Jake. . .

Jason (Jake) Horsley said...

if you've seen some of my old blog posts, you will know i have been through the anger and frustration of being urecognized and finally come out the other side. World's favors always come at a high price anyway; there is power in anonymity which the rich n' famous high and mighty never even suspect. Failure is the best teacher we can have: success the biggest trap of all.

But yes, some royalties would be nice!

SM Kovalinsky said...

I agree with you whole heartedly, Jake, and there must be a happy medium for those like us. Methinks the Internet may hold a key or two, in good time. . .

Under New Influence